The Reach and the Grasp
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
Scripture: Philippians 3: 4b- 14; John 12:1-8
“It is not that I have already achieved this or finished my course, it is rather that I continue reaching forward and trying to lay hold of that which has already laid hold of me, through Christ.” — Philippians 3:12 (My translation)
In my last sermon (3/7/10) I said that Jesus put divine forgiveness prior to human repentance in the order of salvation and that that so angered his religious competitors that they contrived his death. Religion as usual runs: “God is displeased with you because of your bad behavior, but He will forgive you if you confess your general unworthiness and specific transgressions, and thus admit that the religious leaders were right about you, and from henceforth can rightly expect your allegiance, obedience, and material support.” Jesus, on the contrary, said, “God has already forgiven you and therefore you can repent, you can change your mind and heart, because there is no more condemnation to fear and flee (Rom. 8:1).” It is this fear of condemnation that makes us religious folk so devious in our piety; even when we are blaming ourselves heartily and making ourselves miserable over our faults we are perjuring ourselves, because we do so not for love of life and God but for fear of death and the outcome of our little lives. Having lived on our knees all this earthly life we want to continue on our knees forever, we want our masochism to go on for eternity. With a god like this, who needs a devil?
Jesus reveals the other, the real God, and St Paul “gets it.” For this reason alone it is a matter of life and death to us that we pay attention to the words of Scripture, early and often, otherwise we risk falling victim to the misery-mongering god of church ambition and default religion, that killer combination of laws, threats, and false comfort, the religion that first makes you sick with threats so it can then cure you with promises – that never come true. So let us pay careful attention to today’s great text from the Apostle Paul.
“It is not that I have already achieved this or finished my course, it is rather that I continue reaching forward and trying to lay hold of that which has already laid hold of me, through Christ.”
Here we see how thoroughly the Apostle understands the anti-religious paradox of his Master’s disclosure that God works oppositely from religion, forgiving so that we can repent, loving so that we can love. (As our Society’s patron St John also knew well: Cf. “We love because He first loved us” 1 John 4:19). The divine content of our text comes through most pointedly in the paradox of striving to grasp the very grasp by which God already grips us. How shall we imagine this? Shall we imagine God reaching out His hand to us so that we can grasp it? Not precisely, because in order to offer us His hand God must already be holding us up so we can seize it. “I stretch to take hold of that which has already taken hold of me!”
I shall not try much more to explain the joke; by now you either “get it” or… find another teacher. Meanwhile, let me say that I think divine truth usually appears in human discourse as paradox, that is, as surprise, or unexpected, as extraordinary, or “outside the box.” This is a sign of the incommensurateness of the divine Word and human words, the Word that reveals and the words that talk, talk, talk. Kierkegaard said that the theologians work hard to change the wine of Cana back into water, to explain away the miracle; these days their tribe tries to change the poetry of revelation into the prose of a term paper on how Paul was confused and how this undergraduate would improve Paul’s sloppy thinking. (That sound you hear is not laughing, rather it is the angels weeping for the sheep without a shepherd, wandering on a plain of prosaic nonsense.)
The Victorian poet Robert Browning said famously, that a man’s reach should exceed his grasp. “…or what’s a heaven for?” and very many, including myself, who grew up on the fumes of a dying colonial Britain, took it as an heroic sentiment to spur our ambition. It is still alive, but less genteel, in the brash ambition of our trans-Atlantic and pan-Pacific culture, to become rich and famous, “known” by the sweaty multitude in the Forum, to be “celebrated.” This Browning quote is one of many instances where a Victorian betrays Jesus with a kiss, turning aside the divine grace and substituting human effort, “muscular Christianity” for the divine pity.
The divine pity has, however, grabbed Paul like a lioness grabs her cubs, by the scruff of the neck. He knows he has been laid hold of, and he knows that he continues to struggle against mercy’s love bite that holds him close. Do you remember crying out to a parent or a lover, “Just leave me alone?” Aren’t you glad that they did not believe you? God did not believe Paul, and now Paul is struggling to come to terms with the fact of this divine refusal that is divine acceptance, the paradox of the love that will not take “No” for an answer.
In conclusion we might put Paul’s message in its in historical context to see if we understand it better there. There are missionary preachers who slander him in the very congregations that he founded. They say that in order to be a Christian you must first become a Jew because the Christian faith is really just “Moses for the masses.” However, the masses have to become Mosaic before Moses can be mobilized. Paul does not preach this, they say, because he was never himself a proper Jew and so can lightly dispense with Jewish prerogatives and requirements he had never had. Paul replies by reciting his pedigree which shows him to be a top drawer, “A list” Jew.
“However,” he continues, “all that status and achievement is garbage when compared with the free gift of divine grace in Christ. God takes no note of status and moral achievement; God’s love does not require our worthiness; God gives it gratuitously even to His enemies.”
This rousing affirmation is the heart of the Reformation theology that arrived on the European scene in the late 16th century. It changed the face of Europe and ushered in the modern world, but not without terrible wars and fanatical politics. Perhaps it can do something like that again, even in these penurious times. Our culture is at a moment of extreme crisis; perhaps this crisis will turn out to be an opportunity for the divine grace to break through to our minds and assure us once again that disaster is not inevitable because there is grace abounding, which can help us if we will allow Him.
In any case, whatever might be in store for the whole, we can experience grace in our little part, by responding to the Grasp of grace on our lives and pressing to the point where His Grip on us merges with our grip on Him. That will be the heaven about which Browning asks “What’s it for?
So keep reveling in the grace you have already received and keep struggling to take on board more and more of it, until you unite completely and with Him and end your pilgrimage at home again in the divine love.